A good, free lunch? Healthy school meals could be big business

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In the United States, many school cafeterias use bulk-produced commodity food that is reheated on-site. While the dishes provide the basic calories that students need to power them through the day, meal providers often focus on economy, to the detriment of flavor and nutrition. The price: roughly $1 per meal.

In much of France, by comparison, day care centers use locally-sourced ingredients, prepared on the premises, to produce food that is designed to educate the palate as well as nourish the body. The price: roughly $2 per meal.
While part of the divide between these two approaches lies in the difference between American and French table culture, it may be a mistake to dismiss this issue as a matter of culinary snobbery. According to famed chef Alice Waters, low quality institutional food is not only unpleasant, but also dangerous, as it can lay the groundwork for a host of health issues, including obesity and diabetes.

Much of the problem lies in the American school food infrastructure. Many school kitchens are not equipped to prepare food, making heat-and-serve dishes an unfortunate necessity. Beyond this, however, there is the larger question of how schools can gain access to regionally produced food. Without a structure in place for sourcing local ingredients, canned commodity foods become a cheap -- if unattractive -- solution.

Recently some businesses have begun getting involved in the school lunch program. Earlier this year, Whole Foods (WFMI) began working with The Lunch Box, a website that is designed to help parents and schools design better, healthier school meals. With a specific focus on food that is less processed, made from scratch, and locally sourced, the partnership works through local Whole Foods markets and solicits online donations to keep the site running.

Meanwhile, Revolution Foods, a Bay Area-based company, has emerged as one of the first companies specifically dedicated to producing high-quality school lunches. Although it isn't focused on local sourcing, Revolution emphasizes organic food with high nutritional value. Currently, the company works in northern and southern California, but has recently received contracts in Colorado and the District of Columbia.

Much of the high-quality school lunch issue comes down to funding. For anybody who remembers Ronald Reagan's notorious "ketchup as vegetable" policy, the difficulties underlying quality school lunches are probably pretty clear: good food doesn't come cheap. Although the federal government reimburses schools up to $2.68 for each lunch, that money pays for far more than food. After salaries, utility costs, and other incidentals are deducted, the actual federal expenditure works out to more like $1 per meal. By comparison, Revolution charges between $3 and $4 per lunch, and Waters estimates that high-quality lunches cost approximately $5 apiece.

Waters' high standard could be part of the problem. As some critics have argued, the funding jump that Waters is advocating is steep. A prominent chef and major advocate of the locavore movement, Waters sets a high standard: her ideal meals are prepared from locally-sourced, organic, premium ingredients. By comparison, many school districts currently depend on bulk commodities that are provided by the government; Waters characterizes these ingredients as "essentially leftovers from big American food producers."

As blogger Tom Lee writes, "The pretentious is the enemy of the good." While few would argue that the current lunch situation is acceptable, Waters' uncompromising insistence upon top-quality ingredients may transform the issue into a debate on culinary snobbery, rather than a discussion of the basic needs of America's children. As Waters pushes for a $27 billion budget, President Obama has proposed a more modest increase from the current $9 billion to $9.8 billion. Perhaps, rather than aiming for pie in the sky, school lunches would be better served by a more modest -- and achievable -- menu.

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